Patch: Jailed Immigrants Sue ICE Over Forced Video Court Hearings

By Noah Manskar, Patch Staff
Feb. 13, 2019

Seven immigrants detained in the New York City area are suing over a federal policy that forces them to make court appearances on video from jail.

Since last June, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's New York office has refused to bring jailed immigrants to the Varick Street immigration court and forced them to go through proceedings over video conferences, says the lawsuit filed Tuesday in Manhattan federal court.

The complaint asks the court to stop ICE from proceeding with the policy, which it says violates immigrants' constitutional rights and prevents their lawyers from representing them effectively.

"ICE's refusal to bring New Yorkers to the immigration courts in which their fates will be determined represents yet another effort by this administration to deport as many people, with as few protections, as possible," said Sarah Deri Oshiro, the managing director of the immigration practice at the Bronx Defenders, one of three legal services groups that joined the suit.

Asked for a reaction to the suit, an ICE spokeswoman said the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Subscribe ICE announced its policy last June around the time that protesters reportedly occupied the outside of the Varick Street building. The agency initially said its refusal to bring immigrants to in-person hearings was because of a security threat the protesters posed, but the demonstration ended the same day the policy was announced, the complaint says.

The seven immigrants bringing the suit, all identified by their initials, have been detained in New Jersey or New York jails while they go through proceedings at the Varick Street court, according to the lawsuit.

ICE's policy forces people such as them to make crucial court appearances through video teleconferencing, which harms them in various ways, the suit argues.

None of the jails that ICE's New York office uses have enough video connections to keep up with the caseload in the Lower Manhattan court, leaving defendants without an available line when they have scheduled hearings, the complaint argues.

Even when a line is free, the suit says, "technical failures have been rampant, preventing detained immigrants from seeing, hearing, or understanding what is happening in the courtroom," issues that are "compounded" when detainees need translation services or accommodations for disabilities.

Immigrants are also often discouraged from discussing sensitive personal information because of the presence of ICE officers in the video conference room in which they testify, the complaint says.

The policy places an additional burden on the lawyers who represent immigrants before the court, who have to regularly travel to jails outside the city, according to the suit.

Attorneys have to discuss case strategy over the video lines often in front of jail or court personnel and can't talk with clients right before or after hearings, the complaint says.

The Legal Aid Society and Brooklyn Defender Services are among the plaintiffs as well as Bronx Defenders. All three groups are a part of the city's New York Immigrant Family Unity Program, which provides legal help to immigrants who can't afford a lawyer.

The three groups condemned ICE's denial of in-person hearings for immigrants last summer when the decision was first made, calling the move "a direct attack on people who have been waiting for months in detention for their opportunity to meet with attorneys, assert their legal right to remain in this country, and see their loved ones."

In addition to ICE, the lawsuit names the federal Justice and Homeland Security departments, the Executive Office for Immigration Review and eight individual federal officials as defendants.